Do we fawn over the starters’ performance or fret about the bench’s? Worry about Glen Davis’ lack of consistency, Jeff Green’s frustrating inability to make an impact and Delonte West’s “nobody wants to talk about it, but…” struggles, or marvel at a starting unit that carried its bench’s dead weight to a series sweep? Yes. On all counts, the answer is yes.
Admittedly, Boston’s bench looked better yesterday. But you wonder if the change was permanent, or whether the one game of light will fade back to darkness like it has too often this season. Gone was Glen Davis’ troublesome case of Chuck Knoblauch Syndrome, but I wonder if his high field goal percentage from yesterday is sustainable. Gone was Green’s unwillingness to mix it up on the glass, but his scoring struggles and utter inability to stay in front of Carmelo Anthony remained. Gone was Delonte West’s lack of aggression, but mixing it up with Landry Fields and Anthony Carter wasn’t exactly the type of aggression Doc Rivers was looking for.
On paper, the three players form a formidable trio. Big names and talented players, all of them. Capable of starting for more than a few teams, even. But for whatever reason, they haven’t meshed this season. At one point, we could blame that on injury. But Boston has gotten healthier and the bench remains stuck in the mud. The starters taketh, and the bench giveth away. That’s how the story has gone, on far too many nights.
Thankfully, the Celtics’ starters are operating on a different planet. Through three games against the Knicks, the starters had played 65.25 minutes as a unit. (Note: I would include the fourth game, but Basketball Value has not yet added it to the database). During that time, the starters outscored New York by 30.86 points per 100 possessions. While that number will inevitably go down against better competition and is inflated by a few factors, notably New York’s injuries and Boston’s fireball-hot shooting in Game 3, the starting five’s terrific play seems sustainable. Rajon Rondo has entered playoff mode, meaning he’s now 300% of the player he was in the regular season; Jermaine O’Neal’s body finally kept up its end of the bargain; Ray Allen shot the ball better this year than he has in his whole career, and that’s no small feat; and Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett have been rejuvenated by the helping hand of good health.
The memories make me shudder. Garnett getting beat by Kris Humphries, getting burned by Al Harrington, surrendering 18 rebounds to Pau Gasol in a must-win game (somebody come to my house and check on me, please). Pierce’s mediocrity against Lebron James and later Ron Artest. The maddening thoughts that raced through my head as I saw two of my heroes heroically limp within six minutes of an NBA championship, thoughts of what if, thoughts of maybe they’re on the way downhill, thoughts of I hope that’s not how they go out.
The present makes me hope. There’s Pierce, humming for 38 points against Carmelo Anthony, soaring for dunks like he were back playing for the Kansas Jayhawks, dictating his own shots rather than being forced into bad ones by his defender. There’s Garnett, earning the second-most votes for Defensive Player of the Year, moving well enough for Doc Rivers to call a crunch-time low-post clear-out, snuffing out opponents’ scoring opportunities on the regular. For as much as this Boston Celtics season has been marked by injuries—debilitating ones to Shaq and Jermaine O’Neal, nagging ones to Rajon Rondo and Glen Davis and a season-crippling one to Delonte West, among others—the two men who led Boston to the 2008 title are running and jumping like young bucks. It’s the biggest difference between this year and last, the most valuable improvement from the team that coulda, shoulda.
When the Celtics needed a bucket last night, when the Knicks had closed a 23-point lead to four, there was Pierce, passing up a good shot to get a better one, gliding by New York’s defense with the long, nimble strides of a born-again youth. When they needed some breathing distance, there was Garnett hitting jumpers. When they needed stops, which happened not so much last night as in the first two games, there was Garnett, suddenly omnipresent.
So much was written and spoken about Boston’s fall from grace, about Kendrick Perkins’ relocation meaning the end of Ubuntu, about how Danny Ainge might have shipped away Boston’s title chances in one fell swoop. Lost in all the worry was the continued health of Boston’s core, the players who matter the most, the ones who allowed Boston to sweep New York despite a bench that was more hindrance than help. In that regard, at least, the Celtics are in a better place than last year. Always willing, Boston’s bodies are once again able.
In the playoffs, because coaches cut down on their rotations, starters take on a greater significance. If that means the bench’s struggles matter less and and the starter’s rejuvenation matters more, count me in. Still, Doc Rivers would love to see his bench join the party on a more consistent basis.